Writer and producer Larry Gelbart, most known for his work on the hit television series “M*A*S*H,” died Friday morning in his Beverly Hills, California, home, his wife said. He was 81.
Gelbart died of cancer, Pat Gelbart said. The family will hold a private memorial service. Throughout his career, Gelbart developed a portfolio of more than 40 works spanning radio, television, theater and film. His fascination with radio as a child inspired him and influenced his evolving career. “I never had any aspirations of [a] literary career, but writing for radio seemed to be a natural extension of being such a radio fan,” Gelbart told CNN in 1999. “So when I got my chance, that’s what I did.” Barely out of high school, Gelbart began as a comedy writer for radio in the 1940s. He wrote for various programs, including the Fanny Brice show and “Duffy’s Tavern.” While in the Army, he wrote for Armed Forces Radio. Later, he joined the staff of Bob Hope’s show and jump-started his own television career as a TV writer for the star. Gelbart went on to write skits for the live comedy “Your Show of Shows” in 1953, winning two Emmys for his work. “‘Your Show of Shows’ was successful, was wildly successful. Not just because it got there first, but because it got there first with so much,” Gelbart said. The 90-minute variety program was one of the first televised sketch comedy shows.
TIME.com: A 2003 interview with Gelbart
Gelbart took his work to another stage, winning two 1963 Tony awards for his Broadway musical hit, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” In 1972, Gelbart helped create the Korean War comedy drama “M*A*S*H.” The show went on for another 11 years, although Gelbart only wrote and produced “M*A*S*H” for the first four seasons. “M*A*S*H” won 50 awards, including eight Golden Globes. “M*A*S*H” was so popular it lasted much longer than the Korean War itself, and was seen as a commentary on American involvement in the Vietnam War. Gelbart also was involved in the short-lived sequel, “After MASH.” For Gelbart, “M*A*S*H” mixed a bit of comedy with drama, allowing viewers to connect more with the story. “I said once that the only way before ‘M*A*S*H’ you would get any feeling out of your television set is if you touched it while you were wet,” Gelbart said. He added: “We gave the audience permission to feel bad. Because America was feeling pretty rotten then, we were at war in Vietnam. And once the war stopped we didn’t start feeling really terrific right away, if we ever will again about that situation.” Gelbart continued steamrolling through the industry, with works including the 1982 hit film “Tootsie,” “Oh, God!” in 1977 and the 2003 film “And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself,” which starred Antonio Banderas. “Tootsie” earned Gelbart an Oscar nomination for best writing.